Forgive Us Our Debts
Matthew 18:2335; June 3, 2018
A few days ago a motorist in downtown Phoenix left a note on the windshield of his car. “To the Phoenix Police Department: I’ve circled this block for 20 minutes. I’m late for a meeting with my boss, and if I don’t show up on time, I’ll lose my job, so I really have to park in this No Parking Zone. Forgive Us Our Debts.”
When he came back to the car he found a ticket and this note: “I’ve worked this block for 20 years and if I don’t give you a ticket I’ll lost my job. “Lead Us Not Into Temptation.”
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” This is the second of three petitions of the Lord’s prayer: 1. Give us this day our daily bread; 2. Forgive us our debts. 3. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It’s interesting to note that when Jesus finished teaching his disciples this prayer, he comes back and singles out this particular petition for further commentary: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Why did Jesus highlight this one petition over all the others. My hunch is that he wanted there to be no mistake about his meaning. He isn’t saying that our forgiveness of others is a condition of God’s forgiveness. This isn’t a business transaction where God keeps a ledger on each of us, saying, “Now Swicegood forgave Jones of this, so I will now forgive Swicegood of that.”
It’s not like that at all. The Scripture teaches us that God’s forgiveness is inexhaustible. “As far as the East is from the west, so far does he put our transgressions from us.”
So what precisely does it mean, “Forgive us our debts, AS we forgive our debtors.” I think the key to understanding this is the location of our heart. If our hearts are hard and unforgiving, if we are unable to let the past go, if we are unable to forgive people who have truly hurt us, then we aren’t soft enough, receptive enough, vulnerable enough to receive God’s forgiveness.
The one character Jesus pictured as the most impossible to respect is found in the parable of the unmerciful slave. Can’t you just see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as he deliberately exaggerates the details. No slave in Palestine could possibly owe ten thousand talents ten million dollars at today’s rate more than ten times the total taxes of Palestine to Rome on an annual basis. The salve owed a debt he couldn’t pay in a lifetime, or in a million lifetimes. He comes begging on his knees before his master. The slate is wiped clean. Then with this unbelievable mercy still ringing in his ears, the slave goes straight to wring the neck of a poor devil who owes him twenty bucks!
Jesus tells this story to amplify the point that people who are unforgiving are not able to receive forgiveness. Jesus, ever the master psychologist, knew that people who have a hard time forgiving others have a hard time forgiving themselves. He knew that if we hold onto grudges, we also are pretty tough on ourselves. He knew that if we continue to stew in resentment and bitterness over the wrongs done us, our hearts are not ready to let God come in and take over and forgive us utterly. He knew that God’s grace cannot dwell in a soul that is essentially graceless.
I read an interview with a young Palestinian. As he talked about the
oppression of the Israelis, he said very simply, “I will never forgive.”
Is there any thing harder in the world than forgiveness? It doesn’t come natural to anybody. All of us, at some point in our lives, have been hurt and hurt deeply by someone else. We don’t find it easy to forgive, and oftentimes don’t want to forgive. We rehearse our grudges over and over again to keep the enmity alive. .
A few years ago this ad ran in the personals section of the L.A. Times.
“Would the man who lived at such and such address 19 years ago and walked out on his wife and six months old son please contact me. I am that son and I would like the pleasure of
kicking his teeth in.”
Something within us all resonates with that ad. We like to see people get their comeuppance. The only problem with that, Gandhi so astutely observed, is that if we keep insisting on an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the whole world will be rendered blind and toothless.
Here’s the question this prayer poses:
Do the Palestinians have to forgive the Jews?
“Do I have to forgive the person who stabs a knife deep in my soul?”
These are not theoretical questions. They are questions people deal with every day. History moves in one direction or another depending on how these questions are answered. Will the Palestinians and Jews move from enmity to amity. It depends on how the forgiveness question is dealt with.
Do we have to forgive? What are the consequences of forgiving, of not forgiving? What is like living in a world where there is no forgiveness, only a downward spiral of retribution and violence? What is it like for you and me to have done something wrong, and never be forgiven of it?
I can only frame the whole issue of forgiveness in light of what happened one Friday afternoon some time ago. After we had stripped the man of his clothes, spit on him, whipped him, we had a legal trial and decided his punishment would be crucifixion. And as he hung there, bleeding, he looked down at us in our eternal cycles of vengeance, and this king said, “Father, forgive them.”
There was once this old rancher who lived in Texas. He was a tough old bird, and mean as a steer that has just been branded. One day, one of his cowboy was caught stealing a cow from the rancher’s herds. When the cowboy was dragged before the rancher, and the old rancher looked down at him, the cowboy trembled in his boots.
“Hang him,” the rancher said. “It’ll teach him a lesson.”
Well, time came for the old rancher to die. He died and found himself standing before his maker. When God looked down from the great throne, the rancher thought about his life, all the mean things he had done, the way he had lived. He trembled in his boots.
And the Lord said, “Forgive him. It’ll teach him a lesson.”